The Music of Oscar Bettison

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Oscar Bettison is a composer of visceral, uncompromising, and immersive music that has been described by radio host and music writer John Schaefer as having a “menacing beauty.” The vivid titles that the UK-born, US-based composer has given to some of his works—O Death, B+E (with aggravated assault), Livre des Sauvages, The Afflicted Girl—offer hints at the idiosyncratic sound world that he has been so effectively mining for over two decades. Though, of course, to describe the trajectory of a composer, or an artist of any kind for that matter, inevitably circumscribes and limits the range of that work, especially when that person is still alive and continuing to create, and such boundaries are anathema to Oscar Bettison. He has strived for each new composition he writes to be the beginning of an unchartered journey and he likes “to be a little bit uncomfortable.”

“When I start a piece I never know what I’m going to do with it,” Bettison says. “The creation of things, that sense of awe is actually quite child-like: ‘Wow, I just found this cool sound!’ That’s what it’s all about.”

Nevertheless Bettison has acknowledged that there have been some discernible through-lines throughout his creative work, whether conscious or unconscious, as a result of his aesthetic concerns. “I don’t like things that are super, super clean,” he admits. “I always like there to be a bit of dirt there. I gravitate towards finding tension in things; that’s something that comes naturally to me. I am interested in dream-like states, but maybe they’re more nightmarish. Dreams can be very comfortable but they can also be very uncomfortable. I had very vivid dreams when I was a kid that I still remember and a lot of my music is an aural depiction of that.”

O Death, a watershed ensemble work Bettison originally composed for the Dutch Ensemble Klang between 2005 and 2007 and which they have subsequently recorded, contains many features that have since become hallmarks of much of his subsequent output: aggressive volume and pulsation, scordatura tunings, microtonal inflections, numerous extended techniques, and doublings on a variety of non-standard instruments. Although scored for a sextet of 2 saxophones, trombone, electric guitar, piano, and percussion, the musicians are also called upon to perform on soprano recorders, Jew’s harps, harmonica, melodica, and banjo. Clocking in at 70 minutes, it was the longest piece he had composed up to that point. A friend told Bettison many years later that at the time he was writing the piece, he claimed that he was “more interested in being a novelist than a short story writer.” Though Bettison now doesn’t remember having said that, he admits that he is most artistically fulfilled when he is given an opportunity to “think on a big scale.” O Death envelops the listener in a surreal and completely unfamiliar sound world that is part ritual, part nightmare. Though exclusively an aural experience, this is music that aspires to the condition of theatre or even cinema. Bettison further refined the mise-en-scène aspect of his compositional aesthetics in later compositions which include very specific directions for the placement of each of the musicians that share a kinship with directions in screenplays. “I think of the drama in every piece,” Bettison explains. “It’s more than music being played. It’s like a weird kind of magic, hopefully.”

There’s also a lot of weird magic in Livre des Sauvages, a 30-minute work he composed in 2012 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, which has been recorded by the Ensemble Musikfabrik, and will be performed by Alarm Will Sound on February 20, 2020 at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre as part of an all-Bettison concert. After seeing crude renderings of religious ceremonies and wars between tribes depicted in a 19th-century collection of drawings purporting to be the work of Native Americans which was later exposed as a hoax, Bettison was inspired to fashion a kind of “fake double violin concerto” chock full of pseudo-primitive and otherwise otherworldly sonorities. Again, the musicians are required to double on a wide range of unusual instruments including tuning forks, toy piano, prepared piano, an additional piano tuned a quarter-tone flat, harmonica, and melodicas attached to foot pumps.

The February 2020 Miller Theatre Bettison Portrait Concert will also include the New York premiere of Pale Icons of Night, a 25-minute bona fide violin concerto Bettison composed for Courtney Orlando and Alarm Will Sound in 2018, which was described in the Washington Post as “barbarism a la Rite of Spring.” According to Bettison, it’s “really about dreams, two different states: grounded vs. ephemeral; everything’s a dichotomy.” It’s another score loaded with sonic curiosities: preparations for mallet percussion instruments as well as the piano; microtones as small as 1/8th tones in the strings; and a variety of exhalations into the mouthpieces of the wind instruments.

Presence of Absence (2016), a more recent, 50-minute work for Ensemble Klang, also juxtaposes dichotomies—between what is there and what isn’t. This time Bettison was inspired by a text he discovered back when he was 14 years old that he had wanted to set for a very long time, an Anglo Saxon poem about decaying Ancient Roman edifices which itself is a ruin—parts of the manuscript containing the poem were destroyed in a fire many centuries ago. Scored for Mezzo-Soprano (singing original poetry by Bettison as well as the original fragmented Anglo-Saxon text of “The Ruin”) and 10 players, all of whom are amplified, it is the sole example of vocal music in Bettison’s mature oeuvre. It also features what is probably the most extreme example of scordatura he has employed thus far; the lowest strings of the violins, viola, and cello are each significantly detuned so that when notes are played on them they sound somewhat broken.

Despite Bettison’s attraction to long-form compositions, he has also composed many extremely effective shorter pieces that also contain myriad fascinating details. Most of these are for extremely unusual ensembles, though his shortest work, the minute-long Tweet Quartet (2015), is for a standard string quartet albeit one that ultimately sounds more like a percussion quartet as it spews out motivic shards in the spirit of its social media namesake. Apart, from 2012, is scored exclusively for a set of chromatic tuning forks that are struck by a group of four percussionists and amplified. The result sounds like a broken organ that is somehow still playing music after the end of time. It is perhaps the subtlest and most fragile piece Bettison has yet composed. It is the polar opposite of another percussion quartet he wrote two years earlier, Four Drums for Dresden, which is an elaborate rhythmic counterpoint performed on four drum kits, or the relentless B+E (with aggravated assault), as in “Breaking and Entering,” from 2006, which exists in numerous versions, but always features heavy amplification. (It has been recorded by Newspeak, a “bandsemble” that is a cross between a new music group and an indie rock band.)

A medium that Bettison has only recently begun to re-explore is the orchestra, an institution that is often resistant to the kinds of experimentation that his music typically mines. But the fact that it is a realm that he has not frequently explored is something he found inspiration in. “Because I haven’t written a lot for orchestra, it’s a weird object,” he enthuses. Earlier this year, the Oregon Symphony premiered his Remaking a Forest, a 12-minute work that mostly eschews the more unconventional aspects of his compositional toolbox. “Well, there are some microtones in it,” he confesses. “I’ve gotta have something.”

©2019 by Frank J. Oteri

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